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Green Markets, Evangelicals, and the Poor

October 16th, 2008 | 5 min read

By Tex

One issue that has received less and less attention in the run-up to November 4th, and especially since the Economic Crisis of 2008, is environmental stewardship and global warming. If the environment is mentioned at all, it usually is in the context of the American financial situation and the wisdom (or folly) of off-shore drilling and opening up ANWR to oil rigs. Interesting.

A topic that was once so hot as to justify a feature-length “propagantary” now is cold as ice, unless combined with a tandem discussion on the economy. It seems that Americans’ hearts are much closer to their pocketbooks than to their Prius’ these days. As unflattering and hypocritical as that may seem, it really isn’t too surprising given what certain folks have been telling us about human nature and it’s relationship to social market systems.

While some readers might begin to wonder if I’m nothing more than a one-trick pony given my repeated posts on economics, it’s worth pausing from all the hullaballoo surrounding the final presidential debate and take a look at environmental issues from an economic perspective now that a bit of the righteous indignation of the nation’s green-thumbs has been tempered by the wild fluctuations on Wall Street.

February 8, 2006 made headlines as a group of significant evangelical leaders signed and published the “Evangelical Climate Initiative: A Call to Action” (ECI), in which evangelicals were told that, “Climate change is the latest evidence of our failure to exercise proper stewardship, and constitutes a critical opportunity for us to do better” and called to, “recognize both our opportunity and our responsibility to offer a biblically based moral witness that can help shape public policy in the most powerful nation on earth, and therefore contribute to the well-being of the entire world.”

Remarkable for diverging from the position of the National Association of Evangelicals’ decision to abstain from comment on the issue of global warming, the well-intentioned ECI is also remarkable in its display of a disappointing unfamiliarity with basic economic principles. Linking global warming and poverty, the signatories averred that severely reducing human-induced global climate change would be a charitable and significant step towards alleviating a great deal of suffering among the world’s poor. However, the ECI, by forwarding an agenda similar to the Kyoto Protocol, inadvertently promoted actions that would curtail economic growth in developing countries.

Dr. Calvin Beisner and his colleagues at the Cornwall Alliance take great pains pointing out the economic faux pas of the ECI:

Because energy is an essential component in almost all economic production, reducing its use
and driving up its costs will slow economic development, reduce overall productivity, and
increase costs of all goods, including the food, clothing, shelter, and other goods most essential to the poor.”

“[D]eveloping countries have a duty, as governments responsible for the well-being of their people, to promote and facilitate energy and economic development, and greater prosperity and hope, for their people. Poor countries have every right to develop their economies, ultimately creating greater environmental awareness and reaching an improved economic and technological ability to achieve greater energy efficiency, pollution control, and environmental improvement. Similarly, developed nations have a duty to refrain from imposing restrictions that would make it harder for them to do so. Only in this way can both human and ecological goals be met.”

By treating energy production and its environmental effects as unrelated to the economy, the ECI imposes a Western luxury (limiting carbon emissions) on countries that do not have the economic strength to survive on rich-kid alternatives like wind and solar power. Forget the possible damage and suffering caused by more flooding or tropical storms, that sort of damage is repairable; the economic and cultural damage that would be caused by removing a developing country’s source of growth and production would ensure that the poor would remain so for the foreseeable future as Beisner points out:

Stopping or reversing economic development in the world’s poor countries–which drastic
restrictions on fossil fuel use would cause–would keep poor nations impoverished. It would
perpetuate what South Africa’s Leon Louw calls “human game preserves” where Western
tourists can see “cute indigenous people at one with their environment and the wildlife.”

The way to help the poor is by empowering them to grow their industries and economies through all the resources available to them. The jury is still out on the existence of catastrophic global warming as well as its possible impact; in the meantime, Christians and concerned citizens should promote policy that will reduce poverty and promote ingenuity and energy solutions—something the incentives of an unencumbered free market will do surprisingly well.

As the elections draw near, Christians who take seriously their God-given requirement to exercise environmental stewardship and to offer hope and grace to those in need ought to re-think the proposed solutions to environmental and economic ills. Given the current lack of sound economic thinking, more than a few might be surprised to discover that an economic system that accounts for the depravity of man as well as his god-like capacities might go a long way towards freeing men from oppressive systems while promoting their general welfare and securing for them the blessings of liberty.